Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Necropolis Railway, by Andrew Martin

9780571228782Not very far from where I live (but not very close either) there is a mysterious long wall along the side of a road that seems to wind for miles. It is just high enough to enable one to see that on the other side are many imposing and rather mournful-looking Sequoias (Giant Redwood trees, that seem to thrive marvellously in, of all places, Surrey). The wall encloses what is rather mundanely named these days Brookwood Cemetery, which used to be The London Necropolis. At one time, it was the largest cemetery in the world, and I believe it still claims to be the largest in Britain. Its foundation is the absolute epitome of a uniquely Victorian mixture of philanthropic impulse and hard-nosed enterprise. It was founded for the decorous and hygienic interment of London’s dead, at the time that its population was rocketing and all its churchyards full to overflowing, causing a public health scandal that none could ignore which led to the closure of London’s graveyards in 1851. So the land was bought and an Act of Parliament obtained, and the cemetery was opened in the early 1850s. Taking Victorian enterprise even further, the cemetery was served by its very own railway company, with specialised rolling stock and a private station close to Waterloo designed for and dedicated to the reception of hearses and the funeral parties that accompanied them. It had a private junction on to the tracks of the London and South-Western Railway, and a private branch line from Brookwood Station right into the cemetery. There were even two separate stations in there, one for Church of England funeral parties, and one for Non-conformists and those of other faiths.

It should have been a sure-fire financial success, as it was dealing (as the saying goes) in one of the only two certainties in all our lives. But its opportunity to corner the market (forgive me for being so earthbound) was ruined before the end of the nineteenth century as it was in competition with other large new cemeteries created in the suburbs to serve London, and closer to the city, such as Kensal Green, Highgate and Brompton. Its business assumption that it would receive over 10,000 burials a year was never approached even by half.

So this is the local colour that lead me to read Andrew Martin’s murder mystery The Necropolis Railway with some enjoyment. It is set in the early 1900s, when the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company is struggling to survive, and firmly based in the unique selling point of the London Necropolis, its very own railway. The narrative requires quite a lot of concentration, unless one is a railway, and specifically a steam buff. It is a truly nerdy read, full of technical talk and railway slang – the reader needs to be prepared either to swallow it whole as the plot rattles (and clanks) along, or keep a notebook close by to write down new words. The other local colour, of which this novel has bushels, is the setting of the area around Waterloo, Lower Marsh and Nine Elms railway yards where most of the action takes place. This is a black, dirty, noisy, dangerous place, full of feral characters whose motivation remains murky throughout, both the railwaymen and its other denizens. Into this minor circle of hell falls naive ‘smart lad’ Jim Stringer, talent-spotted while at his post on tidy, decorous Grosmont Station in the North York Moors by a well-turned out London chap, in the sort of way that should really make any smart lad wonder if some offers might be too good to be true. But once in London he is watchful and resourceful, though his naivety drives much of the suspense and many hairs-breadth ‘scapes. He’s a primeval train-spotter, and they notice things, don’t they, and make connections. Various mysterious deaths all point to some rottenness at the core of the London Necropolis Company, and Jim Stringer may be next in line – but from what direction can he expect his danger to come? All he wants, as which upstanding smart lad doesn’t, is to become an engine-driver – if he can stay alive long enough.

This is all played out in a hellish setting of smoke, dirt, coal, dangerous machines, filthy digs, dodgy pubs, houses of ill-fame, in the terrifying decayed train yards of Nine Elms and the seamy, steamy, sooty rookery that is Lower Marsh. This novel has been around for a bit now, and I wonder if it pre-dates Steampunk (about which I have to confess I know vanishingly little) – it certainly pre-figures its dark and risky atmosphere, though while Steampunk is a fantasy genre, The Necropolis Railway is based on actual geography and on a real enterprise that I think Steampunk would have been proud to invent, but which nevertheless has a historical basis. If you like what you read in the first few chapters, then this is a truly original start to a line of historically-based thrillers. Andrew Martin has been a worthy winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Award for a later novel in this series (The Somme Stations 2011) and I can imagine the impact that this first novel had.

It is an achievement to conjure a London that my grandparents’ generation would remember but is now utterly lost. Lower Marsh is gentrifying so fast that you need a stop-watch to work out the property values, and Nine Elms is now hidden under the New Covent Garden vegetable and flower markets. Brookwood Cemetery still functions, and has a selection of graves as well worth visiting as Highgate or Kensal Green, in my opinion – how about John Singer Sargent, the free-thinking MP for Northampton Charles Bradlaugh, the novelist Rebecca West and the wonderful Sufi master and writer Idries Shah who I think is completely forgotten these days. Its dedicated station at the London end was destroyed by bombing in 1941, and its branch line into the cemetery is long gone, though a section of line and the platforms of the two stations are preserved. Another claim to fame is that one of its chapels, next to the site of the South (Anglican) station, is now the mother church of the St Edward Brotherhood, a small monastic community of the Orthodox Church of Greece – Holy Synod in Resistance, that houses and venerates the relics of King (St) Edward the Martyr.

I am sure that all the Jim Stringer, Steam Detective novels are as vivid and suspenseful – but what led me to this one was the memory of the melancholy wall surrounding Brookwood Cemetery. It is a place that is still full of mysteries and surprises.

Andrew Martin: The Necropolis Railway. London: Faber, 2005. pbk ed. 240pp
First published 2002
Series: Jim Stringer, Steam Detective.
ISBN 13: 9780571228782
I read the Kindle edition; also available in EPUB format.

7 comments on “The Necropolis Railway, by Andrew Martin

  1. Moira
    February 19, 2014

    Ooh. Terrific review. This sounds as if it might be right up my street (so to speak). And I have never even HEARD of the Necropolis railway before – I had no idea such a thing even existed. I knew about the Necropolis (and isn’t that such a wonderful word – City of the Dead?) … but the fact that it was served by its very own railway had completely escaped my attention. How could I possibly not have known that?

  2. elizabethashworth
    February 19, 2014

    And I didn’t know about the St Edward Brotherhood. This was such a good review. Not only has it made me want to read the book, it was filled with fascinating snippets of information.

  3. Kate
    February 19, 2014

    I want to know more about the St Edward Brotherhood!

    i used to work in Nine Elms, for the Ramblers’ Association, in the 1990s. Pretty grotty then too.

  4. Alison M.
    February 19, 2014

    Great to see Jim Stringer getting a post. It’s a great series, all well worth reading. Fascinating to hear of your local connection to the Necropolis railway.

  5. Hilary
    February 19, 2014

    Thank you all for your kind comments! I wondered if anyone would share my slightly warped fascination with the London Necropolis and its railway. Andrew Martin’s novel captures that fascination very well.

    I realise now that the relationship of the St Edward Brotherhood to the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church is complicated, so I must go back and edit my post. The story of the discovery of the remains of Kind Edward the Martyr close to Shaftesbury Abbey, and the subsequent search for suitable burial puts me in mind of a more modern controversy. There’s a brief account here in this obituary of the finder, John Wilson-Claridge:

    Of particular interest is that the search for a suitable resting place embraced the thinking that a church with an unbroken tradition stretching back to the era of the saint would be an appropriate home.

    I have a St Edward Brotherhood anecdote. When they were very new, in the early eighties, I was working as a librarian managing inter-library loans and doing occasional information desk work at Guildford Library. The Brothers were regular visitors, and I dealt with one of them who had made a request for a particular theological work in Old Church Slavonic. We couldn’t trace a copy in this country, but through international networks we traced it to a library in (then) Leningrad. The library agreed to lend it – possibly the most miraculous inter-library loan we ever arranged. This was shortly after the death of Breshnev, and well before Glasnost. It was an eye-opener both as to what was preserved against the odds in the USSR and to the resilience of cultural networks. It certainly encouraged me to optimistic that there was no limit to what we could find for our readers if they asked.

    I enjoy finding out about the Brotherhood by reading The Brookwood Blogger: because I am always rather fascinated by how language is used by different people. This blog gives a fascinating flavour of what the preoccupations of the Brotherhood are.

    Sorry – just written a whole other blog post here!

  6. Mr_Benn
    February 24, 2014

    By happenstance, today I reached the part of the scarily young and prodigiously talented Kate Griffin’s urban fantasy “The Glass God” in which _she_ makes fleeting reference to the historical necropolis railway.

  7. Murasaki
    April 4, 2014

    If you liked this, try the non-fiction book “Necropolis: London and its dead” by Catharine Arnold. It’s a great read about how London has coped over centuries with the problem of burying the dearly (or not so dearly) departed.

    Brookwood has its reflection in Australia. Rookwood Cemetry (even the name is similar) was set up in imitation of Brookwood, reailway, mortuary stations and all. One of the stations is now a church in Ainslie, ACT.

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